Movement for health
In my view the key to good health and longevity, whether that’s via diet, exercise or any other aspect of lifestyle, is to know what’s appropriate at any given moment; in this article I hope to give some pointers in that direction, relating particularly to exercise.
A few ground rules that I use when considering what’s appropriate:
Know yourself and your limits
Know when to rest
Know when and how to exercise
Regard everything you do as an investment
Choosing the right investments for your energy is key to a healthy mind and body
You get out what you put in
If whatever you do, you do it gently, you can’t go far wrong
How can you know your limit?
Your body will tell you via pain, tightness, tiredness or weakness. Signs you’re reaching limits can build up over time; when they first arrive they might be minor inconveniences, but are still worth listening to.
When you become aware of pain, tightness, tiredness or weakness, it’s a sign that you need to either do something lower impact, or just rest and recuperate. The same applies to stress. If you go beyond your limits, you will reduce your capacity until you have healed – reducing your overall energy and your ability to realise other goals during that healing period.
We are all different; you have to therefore remain sensitive to your own capacity, and not be distracted by a competitive mindset.
How should I exercise?
Muscles and tendons are made from fibres and act much like elastic bands: within their limits of movement they retain their elasticity, but too much of a stretch or weight causes strains.
When I use massage in treatment, I recognise tightness in muscles by how defined they are. There are two extremes: flaccidity, or no muscle tone, and rigidity, or excess muscle tone. All of us are on this spectrum and as with most things, the ideal is somewhere between the two.
The best exercise for you stays in your middle ground, pumping and exercising muscles without reaching extremes and causing strain, prompting signs of your limits.
When should I exercise?
The easiest way to decide is in my view to do a quick assessment of your energy levels. If you feel tired, rest. If you feel energetic, move! If you feel stagnant, move!
Many of us spend a lot of our time at a desk staring at a computer screen; if that’s the case for you, or you experience some stress at work, you may sometimes feel a bit mentally or physically stagnant and achy. In that situation, you will probably benefit from movement, in whatever form that takes.
If on the other hand you feel drained, exercise may feel like it helps temporarily by getting everything moving, but if it’s too intense, there’s always the possibility that you could deplete yourself further. If you exercise sensitively (within your limits) there’s less of a chance of this.
Building capacity, investing in health
Our bodies heal and build into old age; gentle use can therefore still build capacity.
If you want to increase something you have to invest in it; if you want to be a good chess player or violinist there is no replacement for practice; if you want to build muscles, you have to use them; if you want to develop flexibility you have to loosen your joints. However, how you do this is key. In my view, the only way to increase strength or a skill level sustainably is to practice regularly, with sensitivity, and gradually build up.
What is gentleness in relation to exercise?
Gentleness for me implies remaining soft, flexible, smooth and integrated in movement, and in how you apply yourself to an exercise regime. Any focus like this is an anchor for the mind, and can improve awareness generally. The physical effect is to soften hardness (tight muscles) and improve flexibility and circulation. This can of course take time, depending on how tight you are, and any other contributory habits you may have acquired (see earlier blog entry, ‘Eating for health’); however with persistence its benefits are long-lasting.
Adopting this attitude does not mean that you never have to work with pain again, although it ought to occur less and in different ways. When you do experience pain the same attitude will make the experience more bearable and allow you to heal more quickly.
There is plenty of evidence for the importance of exercise in mitigating all sorts of health risks. Here are a few links to online research and recommendations from national bodies in the UK and US, which give details of the many benefits to even light exercise:
Evidence for the health benefits of physical activity, from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health:
Some good simple exercise recommendations from the US National Library of Medicine:
Exercise recommendations from the NHS:
Exercise recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Tai Chi’s health benefits
There is mounting research evidence into the power of tai chi practice.
This episode of Trust Me I’m a Doctor explored the health benefits of Tai Chi: Trust Me I’m a Doctor
Please note, that Tai Chi is itself a huge area of study, and encompasses many different practices. There are general principles, but they relate not to specific movements but rather to how you use your body. These principles take time to understand and apply. This documentary only follows a group over a short period of time, but still found an improvement in certain measures of health. Applied correctly over a longer period, there should be sustained improvements in these kinds of measures as well as of the practitioner’s sense of wellbeing.
Recent research has shown the potential of Tai Chi for chronic pain. The coordinated use of the body helps balance and coordination and with regular practice can be empowering.
Is alcohol safe?
Research has until recently tended to indicate that drinking a small amount on a regular basis is good for overall health. However there have been a couple of studies recently that suggest otherwise.
My own view is the less, the better, and that at least some of the perceived benefits of alcohol are in fact a result of the social side of drinking, bonding social activity being in itself good for your health.
Here are a couple of interesting articles relating to alcohol consumption, in relation to the latest research available:
No Healthy Level of Alcohol Consumption
Here’s Why Moderate Drinking is Probably Not Good for You